In an ESL class in Iran, a teacher and four adult students wrestle with English. Sanaz Toossi’s play, presented by Soulpepper, is an intimate and insightful examination of how our relationship to language informs our sense of self. It’s very funny, with a mostly light and waggish tone.
The teacher, Marjan (Ghazal Partou) has one crucial rule: ENGLISH ONLY—displayed prominently throughout on the upstage chalkboard. Enforced immersion in the language and the awkward struggle through unfamiliar words is, she asserts, the key to success. There is a giddy, communal mirth in the contrived, generically utilitarian conversations they must play-act in class.
As the students engage with the language and each other, we gradually discover their individual stakes. As the youngest amongst them, Goli, Aylin Oyan Salahshoor captures the endearing timidity and enthusiasm of youth. Ghazal Azarbad’s Elham, with academic ambitions for a medical career, is the most antagonistic of the group, resentful of what she understands as a demeaning suppression of Farci and Iranian culture. A cute flirtation develops between Marjan and Sepehr Reybod’s charismatic Omid, though we and the other students wonder at his suspicious ease with the English. The eldest, the warm and grounded Roya (Banafsheh Taherian), is desperate to reconnect to her son who has already settled in America.
The stilted delivery and pronounced accents of their English interactions gives way to naturalistic speech to indicate when the characters are communicating with each other in their native Farsi. This vocal device helps to convey one of the most perceptive aspects of their situation—that our comfort and familiarity with a language enables us to communicate our interiority. When struggling with a language, our intelligence, our sense of humour, our essential nature becomes trapped within, frustratingly inaccessible.
As tensions mount between them, personal histories and dreams for the future are revealed. From scene to scene, their dynamic shifts and the heartbreaking aspects of their situation begins to colour the humour. Without heightened emotionality, Anahita Dehbonehie and Guillermo Verdecchia’s direction maintains a steady naturalism where the complexity feels understated and honest.
One of the most affecting moments for me was Roya’s increasingly desperate phone calls to her son, Nadar. In Sina Suren’s voicemail message, that jovial “have a good one,” we can hear a diluted, Americanized avatar of the person she loves. Her attempt to limit herself to English, to mimic his “have a good one,” to be a proper American joining her son in a new life, is quietly devastating.
Dehbonehie’s set, a patched wall of grey brick and floral tiled floor, evokes a well-used classroom—not decrepit or unpleasant, but certainly drab in its neglected, institutional feel. Though a window overlooking a quiet street, a video backdrop features an occasional passing car—a visual signifier of the many people who have passed through this low-key depressing space, preparing to realize their dreams of a new life.
In some scene transitions, Rob Denton’s sound design features an apt imitation of the motivational, upbeat music that defines cheesy educational ads. You—yes you!—can make a brighter future in this room, with our courses!
Because this feels so removed from politics and intense trauma, especially because the current repression and revolt are so resonant, a bifurcation occurs in our minds as this tale of determination and hope unfolds. We shouldn’t remove the story from the wider political context and so Dr. Marjan Moosavi’s Timeline of political events in Iran is a useful tool included in the show’s program to help us place this funny and heartfelt slice of life.
I’m still giggling at how “understanding Hugh Grant takes two people.”